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Academic freedom

Posted by Alex Mayer on 10th December 2018

“Forced out”, that is how Michael Ignatieff, the President of the widely respected Central European University (CEU) described the situation when the University announced it was leaving Budapest and relocating to Vienna, ending an 18-month legal stand-off between the institution, founded by George Soros, and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban.

This is a severe blow to academic freedom. CEU has been under attack for some time, with matters first coming to a head in April 2017 when the Hungarian Parliament passed amendments to the Higher Education Law of Hungary that meant that CEU could no longer continue to operate as it had done for the previous 25 years.

I know from meeting Professor Gábor Betegh, who has taught at CEU and students who have studied in Hungary, the importance of the institution which was founded to build bridges between the East and West after the fall of the Iron Curtain, has an international reputation and acts as a hub for other Hungarian state universities.

Academic freedom is integral to the values of the European Union and liberal democracy. Threats to academic freedom transcend borders because knowledge production itself relies on sharing and cooperation.

The recent European Parliament report on academic freedom made clear the majority of MEPs’ disquiet at the worsening situation in Hungary as well as other broader issues.

Speaking in the Parliament I also raised two issues pertinent to this topic. European students face very real threats when they are conducting important fieldwork abroad. Just under three years ago we learned of the heart-breaking case of my constituent Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old PhD student from the University of Cambridge, who was brutally murdered while conducting research into independent trade unions in Egypt. More recently we saw a Durham PhD student arrested and placed in solitary confinement in the UAE. Of course risk can never be eliminated, but the safety of students is paramount.

Secondly, Universities must ensure they do not become complicit in the degradation of academic freedom. As the world becomes more globalised, so too do our educational institutions. However, we cannot allow universities to set up campuses abroad in the name of widening educational opportunities, when this is not matched by a respect for the integrity of academic freedom itself. In 2010, UCL established a campus in Qatar, a nation that faces criticism for alleged human rights abuses, alongside underpaying its female staff. Earlier this year, the University of Salford partnered with the British University of Bahrain; a kingdom whose record on human rights has been described by the Human Rights Watch as ‘dismal’.

When European universities allow this to happen under their watch, it cannot be dismissed as a one-off issue. Europe thrives on its interconnectedness, and in turn, our universities succeed when they work together. A threat to academic freedom in one place represents a threat to academic freedom everywhere.

When ideas cannot be challenged and contested, when students and academics cannot work freely without facing undue threats of censorship and violence, we must call it as it is: a violation of one of our most basic human rights.

Europe has a proud history in education, liberal values and knowledge sharing. But we cannot afford to be complacent when looking to uphold these values. We cannot allow academic freedom to be attacked at home or abroad. Furthermore to aid Europeans to call out attacks abroad we must first get our own house in order. Therefore the situation in Hungary – a clear attack on academic freedom in Europe – must receive an appropriate response. Hungary must be censured. When it comes to protecting academic freedom, we must all take responsibility and defend the right to question all.